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Expert Comment: The Trouble with Ed

0119 Prof Bill Jones Monday 23 June 2014

Professor Bill Jones, Adjunct Professor of Politics at Liverpool Hope, looks at Ed Miliband's current travails as Labour leader.

With only 10 months to go to the election Labour members and activists are becoming seriously worried about the public perceptions of their leader. A poll published in The Sun on Sunday, 15th June suggested that voters would be more likely to back Tony Blair should he return as leader - 15% - than Ed Miliband - 7%. Meanwhile David Cameron's popularity runs far ahead of his party.

Whilst it's true that Labour leads in the national polls, it is only by a  few percentage points; Labour during the mid-nineties and Conservatives a year before the 2010 election enjoyed leads of 15-20%. Why is this important? Because the governing party always tends to gain support as elections approach once protest votes are stripped out and choices are presented by the parties with more vigour and clarity. Labour's current lead offers nothing like a reliable cushion of support for the time remaining. Worse still, only a few days after the above report, one can never imagine Alastair Campbell allowing Blair to risk eating that awkward bacon sandwich in the full glare of the media or participating in a Sun stunt, urging the nation to support our hapless football team. Harriet Harmon, presumably trying to help, said Ed was right to join in the photo-op and then right to apologise for doing so. Damian McBride, Brown's disgraced former spin doctor, blogged that while Ed's media advisers might be well read and OK to meet your Mum,

'...what they are not is fighters. They will never give their press team and foot-soldiers the ammunition required to win the next 40 weeks in the media and on the doorstep,  not just because they lack an understanding of what might do the trick, but also an appreciation of why doing so matters. Just like David Cameron, Ed Miliband has been guilty of recruiting his innermost circle of advisers entirely in his own image.'  

The Sunday Times, 22nd June, ran a full page poll-based story on 'Miliband Isn't Working', which should ring alarm bells throughout the party: 66% of voters think he is not 'doing well as leader', with only 23% saying he is; 51% think he is 'weak; 60% 'not up to the job'; 58% that it's unclear what he stands for and 56% that he is not 'in touch with ordinary people'. Even worse, more Labour voters see him as weak rather than strong and a third that he is 'not up to the job'. Neil Kinnock, defending Ed,  sees a repeat of the kind of stitch up from which he suffered in the run up to the 1992 election. Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and other loyalists have also dismissed these 'attacks' as inaccurate and unfair.

Well, maybe they are but to dismiss the story as a 'Kinnock-style attack' is disingenuous. The Sun story on polling day, 1992, telling the nation to 'turn out the lights' if Kinnock was elected, was straight-forward right wing political abuse but poll evidence is in a different category. Ed started with poor ratings and has sunk to levels below even those of Nick Clegg. In these days of 'presidential' elections voters are heavily influenced by perceptions of party leaders: they embody the party's brand image and its ability to run the country competently and successfully. Scepticism about Ed is one of the major reasons Labour's poll lead- 6% in the ST poll- is flimsy bordering on the vestigial when looking forward to next May.

David Blunkett, furthermore, is not crying wolf when he predicts winning Conservatives will redraw constituencies to tilt the voting system their way, locking out Labout for 15 years. Scottish independence, moreover, could rob Labour of the seats which have delivered majorities in the past. Should Ed be replaced? Opening up such a can of worms with only 10 months to go would be extremely risky and maybe fatal but the bigger question is who would take his place? Ed Balls? I don't think so. Chuka Umunna? Not yet I'd say. David Miliband? if only, but out of the running almost certainly.  The voting system still benefits Labour but with a recovering economy and a faltering leader, the Tories are justified in thinking the still substantial voting swing they need for an overall majority, is moving within their reach.


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